New Report Shows Divorce Rates Highest in Bible Belt States

According to new data released yesterday (PDF) from the U.S. Census Bureau, Southern states — including many Bible Belt ones — had some of the highest rates of divorce for both men and women in the country.

Nine of the 14 states with divorce rates for women above the U.S. average, ranging from 10.7 to 16.2, were in the South. They included Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

By comparison, four of the 10 states with below-average divorce rates for women, ranging from 6.0 to 8.9, were in the Northeast: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Why might that be?

“In the South, there are higher rates of marriage and higher rates of divorce for men and women,” said Diana Elliott, a family demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau and co-author of the new report. “In the Northeast, you have people who are delaying first marriages, and consequently there are lower rates of marriage and lower rates of divorce.”

Youth and lack of education can lead to higher divorce rates, said D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center, who wrote a report on “The States of Marriage and Divorce.” There’s also an interactive map on the website.

“There tend to be higher divorce rates in states where women marry young,” Cohn said. “Education also may play a role. In general, less educated women marry at younger ages than college-educated women, and less educated couples have higher divorce rates.”

If someone has time, I’d love to see what the correlation is between divorce rates in each state compared to the percentage of people in each state who declare themselves religious “nones” (according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (PDF)).

(Thanks to Greg for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    “for men and women”Um; I’m sure I’m missing something, but aside from the (what surely must be) tiny influence of same-sex marriages on the statistics, doesn’t the divorce rate for men and women have to be exactly the same? After all for every divorce that a man goes through, a woman has to go through one two, in an exact 1:1 relationship. No?

    • Lambert Heenan

      I thought the same too. But perhaps they are looking at which partner filed the court papers.

      • Michelle

        Perhaps they’re taking into account multiple marriages. There could be a higher percentage of women with second or more marriages that also fail.

    • Kristina Pelletier

      Well, if they’re counting the number of men and women divorced, you’ve got some people who have been divorced more than once. My brother, for instance has been divorced 3 times. That means the women he’s divorced are a 3:1 ratio.

      • Rich Wilson

        But that would be 3 women at a 1:3 ratio vs. one man at a 3:1.  It would still come out in the wash.  Each marriage that ends in divorce is a divorce for both the F side and the M side.  The only way I can make sense of it is in states that allow SSM.

  • Rich Samuels

    And that’s why you try before you buy, Xtians.

  • B Rabbit

    They are calculating it based on how many people get divorces out of the total population? It should be how many people get divorced relative to the amount of marriages. Like it says, the south has more divorces AND more marriages. Obviously, if a higher percentage of people get married, a higher percentage of people will get divorced too. So what is the percentage of marriages that end in divorce? If that percentage is higher in the south, then we might have interesting data, otherwise this doesn’t say much.

    • B Rabbit

      I got the data from the numbers in the report. I only calculated for the regions, since I don’t have time to do state by state. The divorce rate is slightly higher in the midwest and south, but not a whole lot.

      This is comparing the divorce rate to the marriage rate. How many marriages end in divorce.

      Northeast: 45%
      Midwest: 50%
      South: 50%
      Weset: 44%

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Hickey/30117548 Patrick Hickey

      Well, that depends on what you care about.  If what you care about is the rate at which marriages succeed, you should care about the divorce rate relative to population.  If you instead are worried about divorces in and of themselves, you’d just want divorce rate by population.  What I’d personally be interested in is the rate at which people get married only once, and stay married.  That would require counting people with multiple divorces as a single data point.  How you run the numbers depends on what question you want to ask.

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.tingley Richard Tingley

    I can’t say that I am all that surprised.  It is not uncommon for bible thumping parents to force marriage upon their kids when they inevitably get pregnant at 16 or 17 due to an abstinence only education . I saw this happen to several friends in high school and just saw it happen to friend of my 17 year old daughter last weekend. They make it for a couple of years at best.

    In the situation I saw last weekend the girl is 17, no drivers licence, no job, no high school degree. The boy was 18, 4.0 student that gave up a full ride scholarship ride to get married. Needless to say their chances of success are just above zero.

  • Adwindham

    Another issue that might factor in- I just recently found out that Texas does not have any kind of legal separation. Either you’re married or you’re divorced; there’s no in between status. Thus, whereas in some states a couple might decide to separate but never fully divorce, in states where that’s not an option the divorce rate might be higher. I haven’t done any fact checking on the theory though.

  • William Hamby

    I’d say this data reflects two things:

    1.  It’s not necessarily that atheists are better at staying married than theists.  I imagine if atheists married at the same rates, and same ages as theists, they’d get divorced as often.  The point is that atheists tend to be less willing to make promises they aren’t sure they can keep.

    2. The fact that the Bible Belt is the worst for divorce is consistent with this idea, since that’s where the pressure to marry young, before sex is the highest.  
    Part of it is also just basic math.  People who marry at 40 have 20 fewer years to get divorces.  So… it’s really more an indictment of marriage as an institution than Christians or atheists as a group.

  • GregFromCos

    So much of it has to do with the age at which you get married. For women 18 and under who get married, the divorce rate is something like 60 percent within the next 15 years. But simply waiting until 20 to marry drops it to 35% over the following 15 years. And when premarital sex is one of the biggest taboo’s on the book, getting married young often seems like the better option.

    At some point in the not too distant future, I hope the free-thought community starts taking on the church on these issues where they are clearly in the wrong ethically.

  • Anonymous

    A lot of radical Christians marry the first person they can find just to have sex. It’s simply the result of all the guilt and shame heaped on them about pre-marital sex.

    It’s also a reason for the high divorce rate in the military. Sure, the deployments and all that play a role too, but many marry young just get additional benefits like off-base housing and more money

    • http://www.hexkitten.com Mina

      I wouldn’t say it’s so much the first person they find. To me, that sounds like, “Man, I want to bone. This person is interested? Sweet. I’ll put a ring on it.”

      I think the religious aspect colors things differently. Where some people would think, “I really like this person! I’d like to take things to the next level…” a religious person might think, “I really like this person! It must be love because of the way my body is responding – and that means I need to get married so that we can consummate this!”

      • Anonymous

        Well, not literally the very first person. But often one of the first ones they make a serious commitment with. And it’s often one that’s not really a good long term fit, because they lack of the experience to evaluate that.

  • Anonymous

    If you look at the report, you’ll see that “marriage rate” means the number of people reporting that they got married in the 12 months prior to the survey.  Similarly, “divorce rate” indicates number of people who got divorced in the previous 12 months.  These rates are reported as a percentage of population of men or of women, so it is not surprising that those percentages come out different.  Also, people move, so a person who got divorced and moved out of state is going to show up as a divorce in the new state, while the former spouse shows up as a divorce in a different state.

    I don’t know that they “should” report anything in particular; they’ve done some interesting statistical analysis, and presented it.  If people end up drawing conclusions, and would like certain correlations examined, that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean the original information is useless.

    The other report listed in the article, “The States of Marriage and Divorce” by D’Vera Cohn, does do some interesting correlation analysis.  She finds that divorce rates correlate strongly with age of women at first marriage.  Importantly, she finds that divorce rates do NOT correlate well with either socioeconomic patterns or religiosity.  Thus, I think the kind of snarky comment inspired by the reported high divorce rate in the South is demonstrated to be unjustified.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    A quick wave of the GSS using the variable DIVORCE to check directly, (ir)religious “nones” are more likely to divorce than the religious. Lower terminal degree and outlier  WORDSUM (high or low) also increase divorce chance.

    However, even aside from these, it looks like REGION also contributes separately. 

  • Bryan Pesta

    Hi Hemant!

    I have a
    published paper that looks at this (cited below). We ranked states by how
    religiously fundamental they are (based on a Pew survey with questions like “the
    bible is literally true” “mine is the one true faith,” “I pray every day,”
    etc).

    Here’s examples of variables that correlate with state
    Fundamentalism (for reference, .20 is a small effect, .30 medium, .40 large):

    State IQ              -.55

    % gun owners   .43

    % smokers         .45

    Heart disease    .44

    # Inmates           .45

    % in Poverty      .70

    Teen births        .72

    Unwed moms   .30

    Infant mortality               .71

    Murder               .47

    Voted repub.     .62

     

    And,

     

    Divorce  .29

     

    Bryan

     

    http://www.people.vcu.edu/~mamcdani/Publications/Pesta,%20McDaniel%20&%20Bertsch%20%282010%29.pdf

    • Guestspeaker

      Hi Bryan,

      Congrats on the interesting publication.

      My only question is whether someone has used an econometric analysis on this data instead of correlations?

      Correlation really doesn’t tell us much… if you had a panel for example (possibly they do this survey every few years at the state level), then you could actually get at some causality, or at least control for a lot of stuff. For example, you can simply control for those states that marry later etc.

  • Bryan

    Sorry bout the formatting. It looked good before I clicked submit!

    BP

  • marf shopmyer

    I’m looking at SC and I can’t believe the low divorce rate.  I know too many people who have married and divorced multiple times. Either they aren’t taking into account the multiple divorces or … it’s the high level of violence.

  • Psyguy88

    When i correlate the “divorce per 1000″ rate and “percent for whom religion is important in daily life” i get a correlation of +.25.
    The correlation between importance of religion and teen pregnancy rate is +.33.

  • http://diaryofamessylady.wordpress.com/ Lauren

    I too would like to know a little more about the methodology used to get the numbers. I went to the site on the graphic but it was just a generic census page and I’m a bit too lazy to go digging through a poorly-designed website.

  • Venture Free

    See? This report proves that Christians are morally superior. How exactly does it prove that? Because the Bible says so. WE WIN!!!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t really understand why this is a useful piece of information at all (even if methodological issues are sorted).  Isn’t this assuming that divorce rates are indicative of something else? Some moral standard? Why is that? There’s no inherent virtue in staying married to someone for a long time.  Some interesting data might come from an analysis of why couples divorce (compatibility issues, money, adultery, abuse), but nothing from the fact that they do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DocMonkey Mick Wright

    Did anyone else get an ad for Liberty University on this post? Man, that’s disturbing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    You need to correct for ethnic percentages when doing these kinds of state to state comparisons.    MA could be lower because it has such a high percentage of whites to minorities.   

    Here’s an example of how to correct for race:
    http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/2011/03/longhorns-17-badgers-1.html

  • NE

    I have seen this report in plenty of other places (such as the US Census Bureau) so it is legit. Since I live in New England and usually stay in the Northeast I don’t know what the situation is like in the rest of the country. However I will say that the fact that, when taken as a whole nearly 40 percent of the combined populations of the nine northeastern states is Catholic. I can personally attest that in the Northeast it is considered normal and even encouraged to engage acts of “sexual intimacy” with someone you are considering marrying (anything but preferably NOT intercourse). Furthermore it is expected that you have known the person for at least a year. This is what I see where I live as well as what I have observed in other parts of the Northeast.

  • Conniejunee Cg

    so i have to do an essay on the “Bible Blet” i could care less about it, but i dont know what i need to know!

  • Dennis Velco

    Thanks for this report.

    I’ve posted this to my LGBT LinkedIn Group and along with some teaser questions to spawn dialog.

    I own, administer and moderate the largest LGBT LinkedIn group with currently around 14,000 global members.
    The group is for all LGBT people and community friends / allies. 
    Come join the professional dialog.

    Link to group >>  http://www.linkedin.com/groups/LGBT-Gay-GLBT-Professional-Network-63687/about

    Kind regards,

    Dennis Velco
    Fine Art Finger Painter
    http://www.DennisVelco.com


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